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"Sew Be It!" Antique Needlework Tools and Accessories

By Suzanne Skwarski, Plank Road Questers #236

Ever since people first wore clothing, sewing tools have been necessary to assemble, embellish, and secure the material used for garments. The first recorded use of sewing tools were crude awls that made holes in skins laced together with corded animal sinew.

As humans progressed and their clothing became more refined, sewing techniques and tools evolved to ease the burden of creation and repair. The first needles were made of bone, thorn, horn, or antler shards and gradually were replaced by metal needles of bronze, gold, and silver. Since metal was difficult to smelt and refine, needles became precious possessions that were kept in a variety of needle cases and holders. In the 16th century, the Moors brought the first steel needles to Europe. Damascus and Córdoba became steel producing centers which manufactured tensile strength blades and needles capable of high volume usage. As clothing styles became more elaborate due to utilitarian and fashion demand, sewing tools increased in function and number. Sewing chatelaines, cases, boxes, and baskets developed in size, shape, variety, and materials as they held scissors, bodkins, bobbins, thimbles, awls, and other sewing tools. In the late 17th century, silver was the standard for metal thimbles, scissors, needles and bobbins. Elaborate embroidery kits of velvet, bone, mahogany, teak, or sterling silver contained everything necessary for fine handy work. When the sewing machine was introduced in the 19th century, streamlined hand sewing kits included tape measures, hem gauges, pin cushions, bobbins, needle holders, emory sharpeners, and fancy scissors. The 19th century also introduced the usage of advertising sewing kits prompting the consumer to patronize specific businesses as they repaired or fashioned a sewing project.

Contemporary collectors cherish these sewing implements from bygone eras. Whether they are passed down as heirlooms or found on "treasure" hunts, needlework items remain a fascinating link to the past.

(Resources available upon request)

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Antique sewing items from the collection of Isamay Osborne Cherry Hill #32